Sucheta Dalal :MSRDC's ExpresswayR12;victim of disinformation? (30 December 2001)
Sucheta Dalal

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MSRDC's Expressway—victim of disinformation? (30 December 2001)  

The last few weeks have seen the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation’s (MSRDC) spectacular Mumbai-Pune Expressway come in for a barrage of negative publicity. The project is among the few international class projects in the country to have been successfully implemented, yet, it would seem that all the news about it is suddenly bad news. We are told that the Expressway is up for sale, that low traffic density is making it unviable, that speeding traffic has led to a large number of accidents (270 last year) and made it dangerous, and that commuters are unhappy at the absence of food and communication facilities.

Is the criticism valid? Or is this part of a carefully planned and sinister disinformation campaign to project the Expressway as unviable and to sell it at a loss to favoured bidders? Clearly, the negative reports are of two types: those that talk of unviability and are aimed at alarming the lenders who have funded the project (albeit with the assurance of a State guarantee) and those about the safety and customer dissatisfaction aspect which seem geared to drive traffic away from the Expressway. The talk of speed limits as a substitute for driving discipline is aimed at killing the very character of this expensive privately funded road that was developed as India’s answer to the German Autobahn or the American turnpikes. Juxtapose this information against MSRDC’s proposal to sell the Expressway (MSRDC’s denial merely says that the sale will be considered after the Expressway is fully complete) and the fact that a South African and a Singapore-based company are already sniffing at the possibility of buying it and you wonder if the torrent of bad news is motivated.

Projecting the Expressway as unsafe and unviable is sure to drive down the price that a buyer would pay. Does MSRDC not realise this? Maybe it does, and is helpless or simply unconcerned. Let us look at specific allegations. The 270 accidents on the Expressway last year are certainly high by international standards, but the correct comparison would be with the National Highway (NH-4). After all, a superb road does not eliminate problems caused by rash and drunken driving, overloaded trucks or badly maintained cars-or even poor patrolling. In the same year however, the Ghat segment of the NH-4 (alternative to the Expressway), which is considered one of the most treacherous roads in the country, saw 1,982 accidents. This number too is significantly lower than usual, probably because the Expressway has eased traffic on it. Accidents on the NH-4 had averaged over 2,500 every year, with 1995 recording a high of 3,576 accidents and 486 deaths—that is nearly a 100 accidents per day.

This does not mean that the Expressway is perfect. MSRDC’s negligent patrolling is a problem and the cows, sheep, cyclists, tractors, repair cordons on the carriageway and people who break the fencing barricades are a potentially serious problem for paying commuters. The viability of the project is under question because the State abandoned the original plan. The Rs 1,630 crore Expressway (including escalation and interest during construction) cost is significantly lower than the Rs 3,600 crore bid by Reliance Industries (it was the only bidder) including a township.

MSRDC’s current managing director Ajit Nimbalkar also admits that at Rs 2.8 crore per kilometre, the construction cost is also significantly below the RITES estimate of Rs 3.83 crore/km. Viability is then a matter of meeting traffic projections and finding other means of raising revenue, which were already part of the original plan. These included a Rs 1,200-crore township to be developed at Chowk and revenues from advertisement hoardings, petrol pumps, food plazas with toilet and communication facilities that were proposed at Kon, Chowk, Khalapur, Kusgoan and Talegoan where interchanges are to be provided for entry and exit to the Expressway.

None of this has happened. Nimbalkar says that two petrol pumps on either side of the Expressway with space for restaurants, dhabas, shops and parking facilities has recently been sanctioned to Hindustan Petroleum and Indian Oil Corporation respectively. Also a tender has been floated to hand over operations and ,maintenance to a private company. Nimbalkar says that MSRDC plans to construct only one such facility on either side of the road, while others will be auctioned through tenders to private companies. Nitin Gadkari, the former PWD minister and the main architect behind the project says that the township was crucial for its viability and would have fetched over Rs 350 crore. Not only was it unceremoniously dropped, but a smaller software park planned near Pune was also abandoned and the land that had been acquired was returned to the original owners. (Nimbalkar insists that land acquisition proceedings had not been completed). Moreover the project itself has been delayed. The Panvel bypass, a fabulous eight lane road that cuts past the hugely congested Panvel town, has been ready for over a month but cannot be opened because land acquisition proceedings delayed the construction of two underpasses (Nimbalkar says that it will be opened to the commuters in a fortnight).

The dynamic former MSRDC chief RC Sinha, who not only conceptualised the project, but also sold the idea to the lenders and made the whole thing happen, is deeply disappointed at the manner in which it has been marketed. He says that efforts have to be made to drive traffic to the Expressway rather than complain about its viability. For instance, while private bus and truck operators are smart enough to see the huge saving in petrol, time and wear-and-tear of vehicles, the government-owned state transport corporations have to be wooed through presentations and demonstrations, he says.

Similarly the municipal corporations along the way, which earn nothing from heavy truck traffic passing through their towns could be co-opted in the effort to drive traffic on to the Expressway and away from their towns. Nimbalkar admits that with the township being cancelled, part of the revenue was to come from government. He says that MSRDC is lobbying with the central government for funds to cover road widening (to four lanes), since much of this work has been done by the MSRDC on the NH-4. Similarly it wants the Centre to compensate it from the Prime Minister’s golden quadrilateral project since it would save on the Expressway portion, which forms part of the quadrilateral plan.

It is not clear whether MSRDC’s present revenue proposals are adequate to make the Expressway viable, but it is certain that the original project plan combined with a serious marketing effort should increase revenues. Nobody objects to MSRDC selling the Expressway to a private party, provided that safety and maintenance issues are adequately tackled. However, it cannot be sold at a loss by deliberately projecting it as unviable and dangerous. It is up to the people of Maharashtra and the opposition to ensure that they are not fed politically motivated misinformation through the media. Otherwise we would have another Enron-type of situation on our hand where an international project is allowed to sink into controversy and disuse.

-- Sucheta Dalal